Back in June, I got it in my mind that I wanted to do a science experiment. I thought it would be interesting and fun to try extracting scent out of flowers through 3 different extraction methods; enfleurage, infusion, and hydrosol. The easiest was the infusion, the hardest was the enfleurage, while the quickest method was the hydrosol, and the longest method was the enfleurage. The interesting thing about these experiments is what resulted from each. Today, I want to focus on the enfleurage method because it is the one that has left me in awe of the science of scent. My project started on the evening of June 28, 2018 and was completed on the evening of September 28, 2018.
First off, let me explain a little bit about what exactly enfleurage is. Enfleurage is an old method of scent extraction that dates back to 1750 France and originates from French perfumer Louis Toussaint Piver, of perfume house: LT Piver. This method of scent extraction is accomplished with the use of fresh flowers, solid fats (most often animal fats are used, but for a vegan option, solid fats such as shea butter, mango butter, cocoa butter, etc. can be used), and alcohol. Fresh flower petals are placed onto a solid fat that has been spread out on a flat glass surface such as a glass plate and then are pressed into the fat with another plate or other glass surface that can press the flower petals directly into the fat. Every 24 hours (more for certain flowers, and less for others) the flower petals are removed from the fat and replaced with more fresh flower petals, for up to 30 days, though as short as 7 days for a less intense scent can work as well. At the end of your re-charging period (each time you change out the flowers it is called recharging), the fat gets scraped off the glass surface. In original enfleurage, the process finished at this point and you are left with a pomade. Whatever fat you used has taken on the scent of the flower and can be used as a solid perfume or as an additive in another product. However, in more modern times, the fat is placed in alcohol, and the alcohol takes on the scent from the fat. After a period of time sitting in the alcohol, the fat is strained, and the alcohol is left to evaporate, leaving behind the absolute of the flower, similar to an essential oil. While an absolute is not technically an essential oil, it is essentially (pun intended!) the same thing. The difference is the method of extraction. The most easily understood example is rose. Rose Absolute and Rose Otto are both scent extractions of rose, but the method to getting them is different. Rose Otto is an essential oil that is extracted through the process of steam distillation. Rose Absolute is extracted through solvent extraction or less commonly through enfleurage.
Why would steam distillation or solvent extraction be used instead of enfleurage? Easy. Because enfleurage is so labor intensive, and the result is much less in quantity than other methods. However, certain flowers cannot be steam distilled or solvent extracted because the process would be too damaging to the flowers and would in turn destroy the scent and you would be left with a waste of time and no scent to show (or smell!) for it. So we use enfleurage for a few flowers that are too delicate for the other processes. Flowers such as Tuberose, Lilac, Honeysuckle, among others are best extracted through the enfleurage process. I chose to extract Peonies because they are among my favorite flowers and were toward the end of their blooming season when I started my experiment.
My plan was to use a variety of 3 different types of common garden peonies; white peonies, light pink peonies, and dark pink peonies. Unfortunately, when it came time to get the dark pink peonies for the last few days of my enfleurage process, they were already out of season and were no longer available anywhere. So, my enfleurage is a mix of white peonies and light pink peonies and went through an 8 day recharging process.
After collecting my peonies, I started by getting some shea butter and spreading it on a clear glass plate. Shea butter is a very greasy feeling fat, so I wore disposable, nitrile gloves to spread the shea butter around the plate. The idea is to get a thin layer, but not so thin that there’s nothing to put the flower petals onto. Once the shea butter was smoothed out, I took my peony head and gently pulled each petal off and pressed them, one at a time into the shea butter. Once the shea butter was completely covered in a single layer of peony petals, I took a second glass plate and pressed it as hard as I could onto the top, and compressed the peony petals further into the shea butter. From there, I spread a second layer of shea butter on the new glass plate that I had put on top and repeated the process. I ended up with 3 layers of plates, however, if I had more shea butter, I would have stacked up as many plates as I could.
Once my plates and petals were pressed together, I wrapped them up in plastic wrap, very tightly to keep the scent from escaping, and then placed them in a cool dark area for about 24 hours.
After 24 hours, I removed the petals from the shea butter on each layer and then replaced them with new fresh petals. My first few rounds were with the light pink peonies, and then when I ran out of the flowers, I picked up some white peonies and continued with them until the end of the process.
On the 8th day of the recharging process, I ran out of peonies, so it was time to transfer the shea butter into a container. I removed all of the peony petals, and any other plant matter that decided to stick around. Once the shea butter was completely void of all peony plant matter, I scraped it with a spoon off of the plates and placed the shea butter chunks in a glass container with a tight fitting lid. Because shea butter is so greasy and thick, it took a few passes with the spoon to remove it all. Once it was placed in the glass container, I covered it with 91% isopropyl alcohol and let it sit for about 2 1/2 months, though it probably could have been ready sooner. I simply let it sit for so long because I wasn’t sure how long it would take for the alcohol to take on the scent from the shea butter.
I put the shea butter and alcohol in a dark cabinet in a cool room in my house. After the 2 1/2 months, I strained out the shea butter with cheesecloth. I strained it a few times, until every last bit of shea butter was strained out. Once the alcohol was isolated, I left it in a pyrex container with a layer of cheesecloth lightly draped over top, and left the lid off. I allowed the alcohol to completely evaporate, not knowing exactly how long it would take. After about a week, I looked at the container and took a whiff. It no longer smelled like alcohol, but now it smelled just like the fresh peonies from 2 1/2 months prior! It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen or smelled!
Once I realized that all of the alcohol had evaporated, I also realized that what I was left with was the absolute. What is an absolute? The absolute is a slightly colored liquid substance that smells just like the peony. Similarly to an essential oil, the absolute is the essence of the flower. An absolute is extracted from the non-volatile materials with alcohol. The absolute that you get from the enfleurage process can be used in much the same way as an essential oil. It can be diluted in a carrier oil (fractionated coconut oil, jojoba oil, sunflower oil, etc.), or it can be added to soap, or just about any other bath and body product you can think of. From all of the flowers that I used (3-4 full peony heads), I ended up with about 7 milliliters of Peony Absolute.
I learned a lot from this process and you better bet I’m going to do it again in the not too distant future! First and foremost I learned that shea butter is a great choice for a solid fat. Though I didn’t write about it above, I also attempted Peony enfleurage with coconut oil at the same time as I was doing the shea butter. My results were not successful at all. The coconut oil kept melting when it was at room temperature, so I had to keep it refrigerated the whole time. Now, coconut oil is a fattier oil, so yes it is solid at room temperature usually, but this was summertime and humidity plays a role as well, so I’m sure that’s why it kept melting. I still completed the whole process just like I did with the shea butter, but in the end, it was too difficult to strain out the coconut oil, and eventually, once the alcohol evaporated, I was left with nothing. No absolute at all, and no scent. So, I would recommend avoiding coconut oil. I also learned that I didn’t take the time to find out how much longer peonies were going to be in season, so I couldn’t continue my enfleurage as long as I wanted. I had 7 full days of recharges, and that was great, but I think next time, I’ll attempt 10 days if possible.
If you like making your own perfume, soap, or other body products, I encourage you to try out enfleurage! It’s a fun, though time intensive project that yields surprising results!
If you try it out, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below! Happy perfuming!
5) My own kitchen!